Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Review - Never Back Down

Djimon Hounsou is an actor with genuine presence. He has that rare ability hold the viewers' attention by simply appearing on screen, in a way that can't be taught or faked. In
Never Back Down, Hounsou even manages to lend vital grace to the most knuckleheaded of knuckleheaded kickboxing flicks; but his typically professional turn is little more than a mild tonic in a singularly depressing film. He plays Jean Roqua, a gym owner who schools Californian youths in the ways of Mixed Martial Arts (or MMA, to those in the know). One such teenager is Jake (Sean Faris) who has moved with his mother and younger brother from Ohio, in the hope of escaping his troubled past. Unfortunately, Jake's reputation as a brawler has preceded him, and within days of his arrival he finds himself taking a beating from local bully Ryan (Cam Gigandet), with the two men scrapping like roosters over regulation eye candy Baha (Amber Heard, capable of better). Jake and his wounded pride find their way to Roqua's gym, and he takes the youngster under his wing, teaching him the importance of discipline, self-respect and – best of all – plenty of nifty MMA moves he can unleash on Ryan at the film's rowdy climax.

Never Back Down is formulaic to its very bones. Director Jeff Wadlow plays everything loud and in-your-face, but at script level the film leaves no cliché unturned as it navigates the same path The Karate Kid travelled down so many years ago. Chris Hauty's screenplay is replete with original, freshly minted lines like "Walking away and giving up are not the same thing" and "Sometimes fighting the fight means doing the one thing you don't want to do"; and the various narrative obstacles he throws in his characters' path are dispiritingly over-familiar. Of course, we expect a film like this to hit the usual beats, and there's nothing wrong with a story sticking to a tried-and-true template, but an underdog-fights-back narrative like this requires a protagonist we can really get behind, and Never Back Down doesn't have that. Faris looks and acts like a young Tom Cruise, but his cocksure and surly performance hardly invites audience empathy. As his nemesis, Cam Gigandet serves up a hammy Tyler Durden impersonation, which is at least a little more fun, but who are we meant to care for amid all of this ludicrous macho posturing?

Only Hounsou succeeds in imbuing his hackneyed character with any smidgen of depth, bringing considerable power to the expected revelations about his own painful past, and he acts as an anchor for this soulless picture whenever he's on screen.
Never Back Down remains a soulless experience, though; it's as slick as they come – with Wadlow putting together plenty of flashily-edited training montages to an incessantly pumping soundtrack – but the repetitive action and homiletic dialogue becomes increasingly hard to bear as Wadlow and Hauty take two hours telling a story we could probably map out in the first five minutes. If you like this sort of thing, then this is probably the sort of thing you'll like, and the blend of hi-octane action and scantily clad teens is sure to draw a sizable Friday night crowd. But if you really must see Never Back Down, then at least try to avoid sitting in the cinema's front rows – the risk of drowning in testosterone is dangerously high.